On October 1, several Russian-language news sources organized to express solidarity with Svetlana Prokopyeva, a journalist who is facing charges of “justifying terrorism.” She may be sentenced to as many as seven years in prison for a column she wrote about an October 2018 suicide bombing at the local Federal Security Service (FSB) headquarters in Arkhangelsk, Russia. Prokopyeva wrote an open letter about her case that was published simultaneously in the independent news outlets Ekho Moskvy, Mediazona, Novaya Gazeta, Dozhd, Takie Dela, Snob, MBK Media, 7×7, Pskovskaya Gubernia, MOKh, and Wonderzine. Meduza has also published the letter in Russian, and it is translated in full below.
I am (we are?) Svetlana Prokopyeva. I am a journalist, and I might be sent to prison for seven years for “justifying terrorism.”
Almost a year ago, an explosion rang out in Arkhanelsk. An unexpected, staggering explosion: 17-year-old Mikhail Zhlobitsky had blown himself up at the entrance to Arkhangelsk’s FSB building. A few seconds earlier, he had left a suicide note on [the messaging app] Telegram. He wrote that he had decided to blow himself up because “The FSB is fucked up — they fake criminal cases and torture people.”
The next episode of my radio talk show on Ekho Moskvy v Pskove centered on that explosion. In what is now being called a “premeditated act,” I wrote a column for the show under the headline “Repressions for the State.” On November 7, the episode aired, and the written version of the column later appeared on the website Pskovskaya Lenta Novostei (Pskov’s News Feed; PLN).
It had been almost a month since then when PLN and Ekho Moskvy got a warning from [the federal media agency] Roskomnadzor — our quasi-censor had detected “indicators of the justification of terrorism” in my column. In early December, administrative charges were brought forward that ended up costing both media sources 350,000 rubles [$5,362] in fines in a magistrate’s court. At the same time, Pskov’s Investigative Committee opened an investigation under Article 205.2 of Russia’s Criminal Codex that targeted me individually. The possibility of a criminal case was growing ever more distinct, but we just laughed and called the bureaucrats crazy. Where in hell was this “justification of terrorism”? Roskomnadzor’s warnings didn’t point to any specific phrases or even to the specific words they had seen as “indicators.” They couldn’t have — no such words existed. However, it soon became clear that none of this mattered.
On February 6, my doorbell rang. When I opened the door, a dozen armed officers in safety helmets used their shields to push me up against the wall of the opposite room. That’s how I found out that a criminal case really had been opened.
Searches are odious, humiliating procedures. While one group of strangers digs through your things, another group stands and watches. Old notes, receipts, letters with foreign stamps — all of it suddenly takes on a suspicious, criminal air. All of it requires further explanation. Your most important, most necessary possessions — your laptop, your phone — become “material evidence.” Your colleagues and relatives can easily turn out to be “accomplices.”
I was robbed that day — they took three laptops, two phones, a microphone, and flash drives. Half a year later, I was robbed again when my bank accounts were frozen. I was still only a “suspect” when I was added to Rosfinmonitoring’s list of active extremists and terrorists. Now, I can’t get a debit or credit card in my own name, open a bank account, or apply for a mortgage. The government has cut me out of normal economic life.
All they had left to take was my freedom, and on September 20, lo and behold, my procedural status changed. Now, I am officially a criminal defendant under Article 205.2, part 2 of the Criminal Codex, and I stand accused of justifying terrorism using mass media. That means up to a million rubles [$15,320] in fines or up to seven years in prison.
I deny the charges against me. I believe they are a hackneyed revenge scheme from a bunch of offended security officials. In that column, I put the responsibility for the Arkhangelsk bombing on their shoulders. I wrote that this repressive government had acted long enough to draw a symmetrical response. I wrote that cruel security policies make citizens crueler, too. That blocking off legal routes channels the energy of public protest into these socially dangerous forms.
If you’re not too afraid, publish this quote:
“A strong government. A strong president. A strong governor. A country where power belongs to the strongmen of the security apparatus.
“This is the atmosphere in which the Arkhangelsk bomber’s generation was raised. They know that you can’t go to protests: You’ll get dispersed, maybe beaten, and then convicted. They know that individual pickets are punishable. They see that you can only join a limited slate of political parties without getting hurt and that only a limited spectrum of opinions can be stated without fear. This generation has learned by example that you can’t fight for justice in the courts: Courts just put a rubber stamp on whatever decision Comrade Police Major brings in.
“Many years of limited political and civil liberties have created a government in Russia that is not just not free; it is repressive. It is a government that is dangerous and frightening to engage with.”
I still believe that. In fact, I believe that with this criminal case, the government has only confirmed my thesis. “To punish. To prove guilt and convict — that is their only mission. Even the smallest, most superficial scrap is enough to get someone dragged into the millstone of the judiciary.”
I didn’t justify terrorism. I analyzed the causes of a terrorist attack. I tried to understand why a young man with his whole life ahead of him decided to kill himself in a criminal act. I may have been mistaken in my reconstruction of his motives — and it would be a good thing if I were! — but nobody has proven that yet. Using accusations instead of discussions is, one might say, quite a primitive, barbaric position. It’s like responding to verbal feedback with a punch to the face.
This is a punch to the face of every journalist in our country.
It’s impossible to know in advance exactly which words and in what order will be the next to get on the nerves of some security officer imbued with unchecked power. They’ve called an opinion a crime. They’ve made a criminal out of somebody who was just doing their job.
They can use that same reasoning to think up a criminal case for any text that’s a little bit cutting. It’s enough to find a few “experts” who are willing to sign the “expert opinion” the investigator needs. Knowing that, would you take on a problematic topic in your work? Would you pose questions that seem likely to raise the government’s hackles? Would you be willing to point out a crime when you catch the culprit red-handed?
My case is a murder of free speech. With my example before their eyes, dozens or hundreds of other journalists will be unwilling to tell the truth before it’s too late.